Auden’s N.Y. Households, From Slum to Sublime

Later Auden , by Edward Mendelson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 570 pages, $30. Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter Sign

Later Auden , by Edward Mendelson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 570 pages, $30.

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In the late 1940’s, W.H. Auden became enamored of the idea that every writer’s mind is a household containing three personalities. T.S. Eliot’s, he wrote, included an archdeacon, an old peasant grandmother and a young boy who liked to play practical jokes. His own, as described in his poem “A Household,” was a paterfamilias tormented by his “miserable runt” of a son and his “slatternly hag” of a mother.

In fact, Auden’s poetry has dozens of inhabitants, as various as the members of his actual household at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn (which included, among others, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee). Auden is the author of love lyrics (“Lay your sleeping head, my love”) and ominous prophecies (“It is time for the destruction of error”); socialist lectures (“Today the struggle”) and Christian hymns (“Let us praise our Maker, with true passion extol Him”); crystalline songs (“Deftly, admiral, cast your fly”) and fantastically complex allegories (such as The Age of Anxiety , in which the four Jungian personality types converse in the meter of Beowulf ).

But the most important of the many fractures in Auden’s life and work is that between Early and Later. The poet broke his life in two, quite intentionally, in 1939, when he abandoned England for New York City on the eve of war. Before the year was out, two more events would complete the break: his return to Christianity, after a decade’s obsession with Freud and Marx; and his “Vision of Eros” in the form of Chester Kallman, an 18-year-old Jewish boy from Brooklyn.

Auden lived in New York for the next 30 years, and the details of his life here are almost folkloric. He was as successful, and nearly as famous, in America as he ever was in England; but a large part of the legend focuses on the unhappier aspects of his later years. Auden had always been slovenly in his personal habits, but by the 50’s, when he was living at 77 St. Mark’s Place, his situation was really appalling; Hannah Arendt remembered times “when his slum apartment was so cold that the water no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit was … worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom.” Alcohol and tobacco and Benzedrine began to take their toll on his appearance, until his deeply wrinkled face–in his own words–looked “like a wedding cake left out in the rain.” When he tried to give Dorothy Day a check for $250 to avert the closing of her Catholic Worker shelter, she thought he was a bum handing over $2.50.

Auden’s long relationship with Chester Kallman–it lasted from the day they met until the day Auden died in 1973–has also proved a rich source of gossip. The younger man was considered Auden’s inferior in every way by most of his friends, and his biographers continue to be puzzled by the attachment. (Richard Davenport-Hines, whose 1995 biography, Auden , is psychologically very acute, can find nothing nicer to say about Kallman than that “it was impossible to be indifferent about” him.) And the pain that Kallman frequently caused Auden, with his infidelities and public scenes, leaks into Auden’s writing–his essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets is practically a roman à clef about their affair. Yet Kallman always represented for Auden the possibility of real love, from which he had felt excluded by his homosexuality and his precocity. Auden only wore a wedding ring for the first few months after meeting Kallman; but it remained a marriage, if a troubled one, to the end.

The stories of Auden’s life in New York have been well told by several biographers, and will surely be told again. But they have almost no place in Edward Mendelson’s new study, Later Auden , which completes the work he began in 1981 with Early Auden . Probably no one alive knows Auden’s poetry and prose better than Mr. Mendelson, and it shows: His close readings are always meticulous and insightful, and he draws detailed connections between what Auden read and what he wrote. Later Auden is invaluable for a complete understanding of Auden, and it should be kept on the shelf right next to the Collected Poems .

Mr. Mendelson’s two-volume division is entirely appropriate, for ever since 1939, the Early and Later Audens have almost seemed like two different poets, and have done battle in the minds of critics and readers. For some–including Philip Larkin, who wrote an essay in 1960 called “What’s Become of Wystan?”–Auden’s emigration was a disaster. In the 30’s, on this view, Auden thrived on the atmosphere of impending crisis, writing taut, nervous poems that expressed the mood of a generation; by moving to America, he lost touch with his natural audience and became merely “literary.” For the other camp–which includes Mr. Mendelson–Early Auden is still a genius, but Later Auden is an even bigger genius. His emigration allowed him to pare away inauthenticity and rhetoric from his verse, and in America he wrote his best poems, meditations on simple but timeless themes like the nature of happiness and the relation between art and justice.

It’s appropriate that Mr. Mendelson should defend the Later Auden, since it was the Later Auden who in 1972 plucked him from the ranks of academia to be his literary executor. Mr. Mendelson, now a professor at Columbia University, is still best known for his work with Auden’s literary remains. It was a difficult assignment, made even harder by the poet’s tendency to revise or renounce poems he had written decades earlier, including some of his most famous. Mr. Mendelson has performed his role expertly, mediating between the poet’s wishes and his readers’. The Collected Poems follows Auden’s instructions, omitting, for example, “September 1, 1939” (“the most dishonest poem I have ever written”); but the Selected Poems and the invaluable volume The English Auden fill in the gaps.

In Later Auden , Mr. Mendelson’s focus is on the intellectual content of Auden’s poems; and while this approach is generally illuminating, it does have the defects of its virtues. Mr. Mendelson pays relatively little attention to prosody, of which Auden was the greatest 20th-century master, and ventures only a few esthetic judgments of his own. He tends to treat Auden as a thinker, or at least as a philosophical poet, and he regards the changes in Auden’s thought as deliberate advances: “In almost every poem Auden wrote at this time, he remembered and corrected the content and tone of poems he had written earlier.” The problem with this approach is that Auden’s ideas were usually confused, and not seldom flimsy. Though educated at Oxford University, he had an autodidact’s mind, full of eccentric theories and explanations; the books that influenced him most were by “polymath generalizers”–or, less charitably, cranks, most of them now forgotten–who “rushed breathlessly across vast tracts of history, tracing patterns unimagined by others.”

As a child, Auden preferred machinery to people, and later on he reached irritably for mechanistic explanations–whether Freudian, Marxist or Christian-existentialist–to supply the basic human understanding that he often seemed to lack. (Until meeting Kallman, Mr. Mendelson writes, “the word ‘person’ was not … part of [Auden’s] moral vocabulary”–rather a large gap for a 32-year-old.) His lifelong habit of analyzing human nature in terms of spurious categories–the Prolific and the Devourer, A and B, Self and I, Alice and Mabel, Eden and New Jerusalem–is another symptom of the same deficiency.

But again: Auden’s household contains multitudes. If one doesn’t like the philosopher and synthesizer that Mr. Mendelson depicts, there is always the songwriter, the prosodist, the narrator with an eye for novelistic detail. Auden, as he himself wrote of W.B. Yeats, has also become his admirers, and he can be admired in as many different ways as he has readers. As Later Auden proves, no one reads him better than Edward Mendelson.

Auden’s N.Y. Households, From Slum to Sublime